For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been up here in the pulpit! We had the Mass on the Grass two weeks ago and last week we had the great privilege of welcoming Bishop Poulson for his annual visit to Grace Church. So, now at the beginning of a new month, we’re returning to whatever “business as usual” is for us as a parish. I say that because, in case you haven’t noticed, there is little that we would consider as “usual” or “normal” about church life right now. I’m still the relatively new rector here; we’re still working through the remaining effects of the pandemic; and we’ve just launched a brand new Family Formation program on Wednesday evenings. Everywhere you look, there are things being rebuilt and things that still need to be rebuilt. Just about everything is a work in progress.
Aside from all of that, we’ve also re-assembled the Church Growth & Evangelism Team recently, head up by vestry member Dan Flanigin and myself, and we’ve had two meetings already. We have a specific goal for the long run -- details forthcoming -- but so far, we’ve spent our meetings trying to come to terms with the present state of our parish and its prospects for either growth and vitality or continued decline. And this has forced us to return again and again to the topic of fear.
Fear is something that our epistle this morning is concerned with as well -- particularly the fear of death and the “lifelong bondage” it subjects us to. We’re not only bound to death itself -- since all of us will one day die -- but also to the fear of death. Death has a way of dictating and determining the way we instinctively go about our lives. And this is what the bondage is. The way that death controls us is through our own fear of it. The fear of death limits our imaginations; it stunts our growth towards holiness and flourishing, and makes us complacent and too attached towards false comforts of the familiar. And on the flip side, this is one reason why the Church has always venerated the martyrs, for perhaps more than all the saints, the martyrs exhibit the most dramatic resistance to the fear of death. They are those who most closely imitate the example of Christ, since Christ, as our epistle says, was made “perfect through suffering.” The only way to achieve perfection through suffering is to be able to see beyond death, as Christ did. To be able to look at suffering, as Christ did, and see not the threat of death that is to be avoided at all costs, but rather the very path of life beyond death. But the martyrs only show in vivid detail what is in fact true of all Christians, or at least should be true of all Christians. We who have come to share in Christ’s victory over death have also been liberated from the fear of death. Death and suffering are no longer the last word for us; they have been transfigured by the cross of Christ that has cast out all fear.
There’s much to say about the impact that our deliverance from the fear of death has upon our lives as Christians. But I want us to think about it from the perspective of a parish -- our parish, from right where we are at the moment. The fear of death doesn’t affect just individuals alone, after all: it can also hold entire institutions in its grip. And this is not really surprising, when you think about it. People gather into groups and form institutions precisely in order to sustain human flourishing; to build things that will out last any one person and continue to serve future generations, hopefully long after they’re gone. Humans like things that are bigger than ourselves -- more permanent than ourselves -- because they help us overcome the fear of death.
The Church itself is one such institution that is bigger than ourselves -- way bigger. Since Pentecost, God has been gathering people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the people of God: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that includes not only those of us who happen to be walking around at the moment, but all the countless host of the faithful departed from ages past. And every local church like ours is an outpost of this Church. This space exists to sustain the worship of God across time here in Ponca City. It was here before many of us and it will, God willing, be here long after all of us. The eternal event of our Lord’s Passon that transcends all time and space will continue to make itself present here at this altar week after week, month after month, year after year. And when we work to ensure the permanence of our church, we’re making a confession of faith that what this place is for is something that truly is eternal, infinite, divine. We do not work towards the growth and vitality of Grace Church as though it were just another civic organization in need of numbers and dollars -- though that would be nice, of course. Rather, our growth and vitality are inseparable from the mission of God in which we have been enlisted.
Now, all of that sounds pretty good and hopefully inspiring. But then when we look around at our church, it’s not always to see the eternity of it all. Our church is a lot like us, subject to change and, yes, subject to death. People come and go from among us and things break and deteriorate. That’s just life and it happens everywhere, to every institution. But because we’ve experienced so many years of decline, these realities are more likely to make our fear of death more intense. It becomes even harder to see that what sustains the church is not primarily the dedication of its members, vital though that is, but the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. And the more we lose sight of that fact, the more our church becomes defined by its limits, its losses, its fears. We start to look like a church that is held in bondage to the fear of death.
But death is not avoided by fearing it, let alone overcome. And the same goes for decline. Our epistle this morning gives us the confidence we need. “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren….” We are among those who are sanctified here, and the point of this passage is that the one who is sanctifying us is in fact one of us. Because Christ is fully human, he shares the same human origin as we do. And he is not ashamed to call us his brethren. As the epistle continues:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
Christ is not ashamed to call us brethren. Our humanity is no longer defined by its bondage and its fear, for our humanity is his humanity: the flesh and blood in which Christ destroyed the power of death. And the Church is the Body of Christ, comprised of its countless members. And as the Body of Christ, the Church is where that victorious flesh and blood are present at every mass at every altar. Whether we’re always aware of it or not, this is only place where the fear of death is cast out. There is a reason you pass under the cross of Christ on your way to the altar. You pass from death to life. You may not always feel like it, with the thoughts and anxieties that we all have about the future of our parish, but Grace Church grows in its vitality every time we gather to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.
The permanence of Grace Church is maintained only by the grace of God, the grace that abounds and abides. And with that grace as the beating heart of this parish, all of the decline and the uncertainty only have as much say as we are willing to give it. They will bind us only as much as we will subject ourselves to their bondage. The humanity of this parish -- with all its beauty and all its strength; all its quirks and all its weaknesses -- is the humanity of Christ in which we are members incorporate. “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin.” And no matter what the appearances of things may suggest here at Grace Church, know that Christ will have the final word about us: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Amen.